September 26, 2006

The Race Card in Marriage Politics

Posted at 1:01 pm (Pacific Time)

On Monday, Senator George Allen (R-VA) publicly denied allegations that he frequently used racially offensive language back in his days as a University of Virginia football player. It was the most recent in a series of accusations of racial insensitivity made against Sen. Allen during his current reelection campaign.

The senator made the denial after holding a press conference with a group of pastors, most of whom were Black.

Buried in most reporting about the event was the main purpose of the press conference: to promote Virginia’s November ballot measure that would create a constitutional ban on legal recognition of same-sex couples.

Some observers will find it ironic that Sen. Allen piggy-backed his assertions that he’s not racially prejudiced onto an event whose focus was to promote discrimination against sexual minorities. Others won’t see any irony at all because they don’t put sexual prejudice on a par with racial prejudice.

Irony aside, Sen. Allen’s joint appearance with black clergy was politically shrewd. Not only might it help to counteract some of his own image problems, it also is likely to reinforce support for the constitutional amendment among black heterosexual Virginians.

While most of the US public opposes marriage equality for same-sex couples, opposition is stronger among African Americans than among Hispanics and non-Hispanic Whites. My own research suggests that the source of many black heterosexuals’ opposition to marriage equality is their moral condemnation of homosexual behavior: They are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to regard same-sex sexuality and relationships as sinful, and this attitude strongly informs their opinions about marriage.

Capitalizing on this pattern, opponents of gay rights have targeted African American communities in their campaigns against marriage equality. Members of the clergy have often been enlisted to make salient the moral dimension of heterosexual Blacks’ attitudes, as was the case at Sen. Allen’s press conference.

The tactic may well be successful this year in Virginia, where a Mason-Dixon poll earlier this month showed the ballot measure was supported by 54% of likely voters, versus 40% who opposed it.

Advocates for sexual minority rights shouldn’t write off the African American community, however. Although most heterosexual Blacks don’t favor marriage equality, many support gay rights in other arenas. For example, strong majorities favor outlawing job discrimination based on sexual orientation and support hate crimes legislation.

One explanation for this seeming inconsistency is that marriage is closely linked with religion in the minds of many Americans, black and non-black alike, whereas job rights and hate crimes aren’t. Thus, attitudes toward the latter aren’t based on religious beliefs to the same extent as opinions about marriage. Given their history and their own experiences with prejudice and discrimination, many African Americans are strong supporters of antidiscrimination laws. However, that support currently doesn’t translate into support for marriage equality.

Sen. Allen’s press conference with black pastors may not help him avoid the political fallout from his recent campaign stumbles. But it exemplifies conservative Republicans’ potent strategy of appealing to heterosexual African Americans in their fight against marriage equality.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 24, 2006

Eradicating Sexual Prejudice #2: Allies

Posted at 12:56 pm (Pacific Time)

Last week, I argued we should base campaigns to eradicate sexual prejudice on methods we know will work. In that entry, my first on this topic, I focused on the importance of heterosexuals not only knowing someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual, but also talking directly with that person about what it’s like to be a sexual minority. Thus, the goal of getting gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to speak with loved ones about their experiences — making the connection between what happens to “gay people” in the abstract and what happens in one’s own life — should be the foundation of any anti-prejudice campaign.

In today’s entry, I’ll discuss a second building block in such a campaign: enlisting sympathetic and supportive heterosexuals, often called “allies,” to influence the attitudes of other heterosexuals.

Allies come from many demographic groups, but the largest and most consistently supportive segment of the population is heterosexual women. In study after study, heterosexual women — especially Latinas and non-Hispanic White women — express substantially less prejudice against sexual minorities than their male counterparts.

There are many reasons for the gender gap in sexual prejudice. For example, all else being equal, gay men and lesbians are more likely to come out to heterosexual women than to men, which fosters more favorable attitudes among females. (There is also a cyclical effect: heterosexual women’s more positive attitudes, in turn, make sexual minority individuals more likely to come out to them.) And many heterosexual males, feeling pressured to prove they’re “real men,” often do so by attacking what they perceive to be the antithesis of masculinity, namely, gay men.

Regardless of its underlying sources, the gender gap is real and anti-prejudice campaigns should use it. We can expect a dramatic reduction in discrimination, violence, and hostility toward sexual minorities if large numbers of heterosexual women effectively communicate a simple message to their straight husbands, boyfriends, sons, and fathers: “Sexual prejudice is wrong and I won’t tolerate it.”

What about male allies? Here are two strategies for locating heterosexual men to communicate the anti-prejudice message (especially to their straight male friends). First, recruit heterosexual men with gay friends and family members. Second, reach out to men in demographic groups that tend to have lower levels of sexual prejudice. These include men with college degrees, younger men, urban dwellers, political liberals, members of liberal religious denominations, and the nonreligious.

As with women allies, the men’s message to their friends and relatives should be that sexual prejudice is wrong and they won’t tolerate expressions of it.

To sum up thus far, a campaign to eradicate sexual prejudice should harness the power of two key groups to change the attitudes of the people close to them: sexual minority individuals and heterosexual allies, especially women. I’ll expand further on these ideas in a future entry.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 19, 2006

Eradicating Sexual Prejudice: Installment #1

Posted at 2:24 pm (Pacific Time)

The continuing problems of hate crimes, discrimination, and hostility targeting sexual minorities make one thing evident: We need effective strategies for eradicating sexual prejudice. Exactly what form such strategies should take, however, is far from clear.

In this and future entries, I’ll highlight some promising ideas for reducing prejudice, based on data and theory from the social and behavioral sciences.

To begin, let’s ask what has been shown to work. There’s a fairly simple answer to this question. Research consistently shows that heterosexuals tend to be significantly less prejudiced against sexual minorities to the extent that they have a personal relationship with a gay man or lesbian.

It’s not enough simply to know someone who is gay, however. Rather, heterosexuals’ contact experiences are more likely to reduce their sexual prejudice when:

  • the gay person is a close friend or an immediate family member, rather than a distant relative, acquaintance, or stranger;
  • they know several gay or lesbian people, rather than only one;
  • they have talked openly with their friend or relative about what it’s like to be gay.

While data haven’t yet been collected to determine whether the same patterns hold for heterosexuals’ interpersonal contact with bisexual men and women, it seems reasonable to assume that they do.

There are many explanations for why personal relationships are so effective in reducing sexual prejudice. Certainly a key reason is that such relationships provide an instigation for the heterosexual person to change. Getting rid of one’s prejudices isn’t a quick or easy process. It involves learning new ways of thinking and acting, and can be challenging and uncomfortable. Most people don’t make personal changes like this unless they are strongly motivated to do so.

By coming out, gay men and lesbians give their heterosexual relatives and friends such motivation. When preserving a valued relationship means overcoming one’s sexual prejudice, many heterosexuals rise to the challenge. The gay friend or relative typically helps in this regard by providing information about sexual minorities and advice about how to act appropriately in novel situations. Perhaps most importantly, all of this happens within an ongoing relationship in which each party feels a strong emotional bond and sense of commitment to the other.

Of course, interpersonal contact doesn’t always reduce prejudice. Personal relationships may be less influential when a heterosexual’s prejudice has a strong foundation in religious or political ideology.

Nevertheless, the research data (not to mention the personal experiences of many sexual minority individuals) are clear and consistent in this regard. They strongly reinforce the value of coming out as a strategy for reducing hostility toward sexual minorities. Any campaign to eradicate sexual prejudice should build on this fact.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


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